24 September 2010

I Freakin' Love Lander, WY!

Yes, Lander!  Every time I go I am reminded again of its charm. Of course, I've never been there in the winter...

I like Lander's location, nestled into the Rockies about halfway up the state; I like its small-town, friendly atmosphere; and I like the great beer and food.  Oh, and did I mention how cheap everything is?

Lander Brewing Company, at 128 Main Street, is always my first stop. It's  now managed jointly by the owners of Cowfish, Gannett Grill, Lander Bar and Scream Shack, collectively forming the “Coalter Block” and creating a unique sense of community amongst the eating and drinking establishments on Main Street. Cowfish and Gannett provide a slightly more upscale dining experience (but at a fraction of the price of similar establishments in Denver or Boulder), and LBC offers a homey, laid-back outdoor beer garden with good grub and no dress code.  Together, the Cowfish (creative New American cuisine), Gannett (hand-tossed New York style pizzas and gourmet salads), Scream Shack (delicious ice cream treats, summer only), Lander Bar and Lander Brewing Pub represent the simplest, safest, and most satisfying pub crawl you’ll ever experience.

And then you can just keep crawling right down the street to bed; you don't need your car for anything in town.  There are more posh places to stay, but I love the old charm of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS, to locals). Housed in the grand old Noble Hotel (284 Lincoln Street), a relic of the 1930s oil boom, you can rent a dormitory-style room (bathroom down the hall, large kitchen on each floor) for a mere $15 per night. You will have to make your own bed and strip the sheets at the end of your stay (and you will be sharing a shower with whomever walks in while you’re there), but the still-glorious front lobby and billiards room make it an interesting mix of grubby and chic. Call ahead, though—if a course is in session, room may be tight: 1-800-710-NOLS.

Then there is the inevitable morning after, when you start to recall all the great brews Lander had to offer the night before. Have no fear—a mere stumble across the street gets you to Main Street Books, a great bookstore with a full-service coffee bar and breakfast pastries (300 Main St). You can linger in this peaceful environment, browsing New York Times bestsellers as well as works by local authors while their strong espressos prepare you for the day ahead.

Lander is home to a multitude of city parks, but none are as stunning as Sinks Canyon,  just 7 miles outside of town. Sinks is renowned for its beautiful, pristine scenery that hosts a variety of outdoor activities, as well as for the mystery of the river that seems to just disappear into the side of a mountain.

The real story is that it’s a geologic phenomenon in which the Popo Agie River vanishes into a large cavern (the Sinks) but reappears in a trout- filled pool, the Rise, about half a mile down the canyon. No fishing is allowed, but a visitor center features wildlife and recreation exhibits, viewing sites and interpretive signs about wildlife and habitat requirements. The park contains hiking trails and offers camping, picnicking, rock climbing and fishing. Sinks Canyon is home to a wide variety of wildlife, birds and plants. Visitors might see porcupines, black bears, red squirrels, bighorn sheep, mule deer, moose or golden eagles.

Doesn't this place sound cool? Don't tell too many of your friends, though, or we'll have to start dodging tourists.


Gannett Grill: (307) 332.8228
Lander Brewing Company/ Cowfish Grill: (307) 332.8227
Main Street Books: (307) 332-7661
NOLS/ Noble Hotel: 1-800-710-NOLS
Sinks Canyon Visitor Center: (307) 332-3077

17 September 2010

Thai Curried Fish in Banana Leaves with Coconut Rice

In these companion recipes, I learn uses for kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, unsweetened shredded coconut, and banana leaves, all inherited from our friends when they moved to the East Coast.

Research about banana leaves comes from About.com; curry marinade for the fish is adapted from thaifood.about.com.

Thai Fish Curry with Coconut Rice

(Serves 3-4)

Thai Fish Curry in Banana Leaves

3-4 fillets: salmon, tilapia, cod, or other fish

1 pkg. banana leaves (if frozen, thaw for at least 1/2 hour) OR 3-4 sheets parchment paper, OR tin foil


1 shallot

2 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger

2 tsp. ground coriander

handful of basil leaves

2 Tbsp. fish sauce

1/2 can coconut milk

2 kaffir lime leaves, snipped into small pieces with scissors (discard central stem)

1 dried red chile, sliced (seeds removed if you prefer a milder sauce)

1 tsp. chili powder

juice of 1/2 lime

Place all curry marinade/sauce ingredients in a food processor (or blender) and process well.

Place fish fillets in a large bowl and add 1/2 the curry marinade. Reserve the rest for later.

Slather the marinade over both sides of the fish, then let it sit in the refrigerator 10 to 15 minutes.

When fish is done marinating, spread a banana leaf approximately 1 foot square on a working surface (you will have to cut the leaf) - or the equivalent of parchment paper or tin foil. Place one fillet in the center of the leaf/paper/foil.

Fold both sides of the wrapping material over the fish, then fold both ends to create a square "packet". Turn it seam-side down to keep sides from opening. Do the same for the other fillets.

Place packets in a glass casserole dish or pie plate and bake for 15 min. at 350 degrees, or longer depending on the thickness of the fillets.

After 15 minutes, open one of the packets. Insert a fork into the center of the fillet or steak (the thickest part) and gently pull back. If inside flesh is opaque and no longer transparent, the fish is cooked. If not, return to oven for another 5-10 minutes.

Over low heat, warm up the reserved curry sauce/marinade. I like to pour it over the fish and rice, below.

Coconut Rice

(Serves 4) 

2 cups Thai jasmine-scented white rice (brown rice will not work for this recipe)

1 cup coconut milk

2 cups water

1 Tbsp. lime juice

1/2 tsp. salt

2-3 Tbsp. dry shredded coconut, unsweetened

Preparation in rice cooker:

Place rice in rice cooker. Add the water, coconut milk, lime juice, salt, and shredded coconut. Stir well (use a plastic or wooden utensil to avoid scraping off the non-stick surface). Cover and set to cook.

Once your rice cooker switches to "warm" mode, allow another 8-10 minutes for rice to finish "steaming". This will ensure your coconut rice is fully cooked and pleasantly sticky.

Gently fluff with chopsticks before serving (some of the shredded coconut may have risen to the surface - just stir it back into the rice). Taste-test it for salt, adding more if necessary.

Alternately, if you are cooking rice on the stovetop:

Rub oil over the bottom of a deep-sided pot. You will also need a tight-fitting lid.

Place rice, coconut milk, water, lime juice, shredded coconut, and salt in the pot and set over medium-high to high heat.

Stir occasionally until liquid comes to a gentle boil (stirring will keep the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pot and burning).

Once the coconut-water has begun to gently bubble, stop stirring and reduce heat to low (just above minimum). Cover tightly with a lid and let simmer about 15 minutes, or until most of the liquid has been absorbed by the rice (to check, pull rice aside with a fork to see down to the bottom of the pot).

When the liquid is gone, turn off the heat, but leave the covered pot on the burner to steam another 5-10 minutes, or until you're ready to eat.

When ready to serve, remove the lid and fluff rice with a fork or chopsticks. Taste-test the rice for salt, adding a little more if needed.

And finally, a word or two about banana leaves…

Banana leaves are used regularly in Asian cooking, serving as functional cookware (steamer packets of grilling mats) that also impart subtle vegetal flavor to the food.

1. Buying

Banana leaves are very inexpensive to buy - roughly $3.00-4.00 for a large pack. Buy banana leaves fresh or frozen in large, flat plastic bags at your local Asian supermarket (check the freezer if you can't find them on the shelf or in the produce section).

2. Steaming

Banana leaves can be used for baking anything "wrapped" - in the same way you would use tin foil or parchment paper. However, note that banana leaves are porous (unlike tin foil), so some of the "sauce" or juices from your food item may seep through. It's therefore a good idea to place your banana leaf "packets" in a glass casserole dish, or a tray that has "sides" on it, so that the juices don't drip to the bottom of your oven.

3. Grilling/Barbecuing

You can also use banana leaf as a kind of "mat" for barbecuing fragile fillets of fish, smaller shrimp, or vegetables that have a danger of falling through the grill. Simply lay a piece of banana leaf on your grill, then cook your food items on top of it (as you would with tin foil). The banana leaf will turn bright green at first, then brown as you cook. It will give a nice hint of flavor to your food that is very pleasant.

4. Storage

Usually you will have leftover leaves after you've finished making your recipe or serving your food, as they are sold in large packs. To keep the rest for use later, simply wrap up in plastic (a plastic bag will do, secured with elastic), and keep in the freezer. Banana leaves only require about 30 minutes to thaw, so this is a convenient way to keep them fresh. If using within a week, store them (wrapped in plastic) in the refrigerator.

10 September 2010

Learn how to make Biryani!

Our friends moved across the country recently and left us with many of their prized refrigerated possessions, including a bevy of specialty Asian products I have never used. I had heard of these sauces and exotic ingredients before, but I was always too cheap to buy them, and so I avoided recipes that called for them unless I felt relatively safe making a more pedestrian substitution.

So, now I am setting out to learn about each fancy ingredient I cannot pronounce which is currently occupying space next to the beer in my fridge. Join me.


Ghee is clarified butter, and you can either do it yourself (recipe follows) or buy it in a jar, like our friend Tamarri did. You can basically use it in place of butter or oil whenever you are frying or sautéing anything for a dish, and it lends a nutty, almost cheesy flavor which is very mild when mixed with other things. My test drive of the ghee was Biryani, the first Indian dish I ever ate as a college student, which I have made before with butter and canola oil. I can’t say I could tell immediately that I was using Ghee instead of oil, but it was a pretty tasty dish.

Biryani (a northern Indian layered rice and vegetable dish)

Strange that this was originally meant for special guests and occasions, because it’s about the mildest dish I’ve ever encountered in Indian cuisine. Think of it as the Chinese version of fried rice—comforting and edible for even your most closed-minded ethnic food eaters.

Serves 6

1 cup basmati rice

3 cups water

1 tsp. ground turmeric

½ teaspoon salt

1/8 tsp. ground cloves

1 tsp. ground cardamom

1 Tbsp. grated fresh ginger

1 ¼ cups roughly chopped onion

10 fresh mint leaves

2 Tbsp. ghee

1 Tbsp. raisins or chopped dried apricots

2 Tbsp. slivered pistachios or almonds

3 cups fresh or frozen chopped vegetables (cauliflower, green beans, red bell pepper, peas, carrots, etc.)

1 cup chopped tomato

Rinse rice and place in medium saucepan with 3 cups water and ½ tsp. salt. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to medium until rice is cooked, about 12 minutes. OR, cook in rice cooker following manufacturer’s directions. When rice is cooked, drain and stir in 1 tsp. turmeric, coating all rice evenly. Set aside. (This is my substitute for saffron, which I am again too cheap to purchase.)

Meanwhile, combine cloves, cardamom, ginger, onion, mint, and 2 tablespoons water in a blender or food processor. Process until smooth and set aside.

Heat the ghee in a large frying pan or sauté pan over medium heat. Add the dried fruit and nuts and cook until nuts are lightly browned (stir constantly). Remove fruit and nuts from the hot ghee with a slotted spoon and set aside. Place the onion puree in the frying pan and sauté in the ghee for about four minutes, stirring constantly. Add the vegetables, cover, and cook until crisp-tender, about 10 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350˚F. Grease a casserole pan with ghee or non-stick spray. Spread a layer of the rice in the bottom of the dish, then a layer of the vegetable mixture, etc., ending with a layer of rice on top. Cover dish in foil and bake for 20 minutes.

Remove casserole from oven and let stand covered for 5 minutes. To serve, sprinkle the top of the biryani with the fruit and nut mixture.

This can be made ahead and refrigerated for several days, then rewarmed in the oven. If doing this, wait to fry the fruit and nut mixture until just before you serve it.

I like to serve this with a modified cucumber raita: in food processor, puree 1 garlic clove, one small peeled, seeded, cucumber, 1 seeded jalapeno, and 1 tsp. salt. Stir in one cup plain yogurt (or more for a thicker sauce) and add more salt to taste if desired. I pour it all over my biryani, though that might not be culturally appropriate.

Can’t find ghee in the store? Neither can I; make your own with my hero, Alton Brown.

06 September 2010

I Went to the O.C. and I Didn’t Even Get a Lousy T-Shirt

Nor did I get any exercise. These people really love their cars! I stayed in Costa Mesa, exactly two miles (but one town) away from my concert. The weather was nearly perfect for walking, but there generally were not sidewalks. Well, sometimes sidewalks would exist along one side of one street, but then they would dead end at a pile of dirt and broken glass. Occasionally a sidewalk would take me all the way to a busy intersection, but with no crosswalk and light to defend me, I lost the courage to attempt to cross. And often sidewalks would end in very stern-looking signs that said NO PEDESTRIANS ALLOWED. I got the feeling that pedestrians were not welcome.

All of the areas I experienced in Orange County were situated off of the busy freeway; even town streets acted and felt like an interstate road. I could drive for five minutes on I-405 and see three different town signs with no other clue that I had changed city limits except for the slightly different color scheme of the strip malls. But this highway-loving culture doesn’t love you if you don’t own a car, so there is also virtually no public transportation available. And so, to travel the two miles to my gig, I had to take a taxi. If you are from California and you are reading this, that probably seems normal and you are asking, “Why have you written two paragraphs about this very commonplace situation?” But I assure you, the majority of the country thinks you’re weird.

Oh, and you people are beautiful. Not a chubby, awkward, or overly hairy one in the bunch. I would enter a restaurant with my wild, wavy mop of mousy brown hair (and yes, those silver highlights are natural, thank you very much) and people would look around to see whose driver had arrived for them. Although you clearly must be spending thousands of dollars to look like that, since you must have a gym membership to get any exercise. And I refuse to believe that I am the only one with chin hair and eyebrow hair growing down onto my eyelids. Yes, I am sure that’s perfectly normal.

But while you may be the Mecca of cars here in Southern California, the flying thing doesn’t seem to have quite gotten figured out. With all of the fabulously rich people in this area, I expected a functional, adult-sized airport. What I got was the John Wayne Orange County Airport. Perhaps there was another one that was better, but I certainly wasn’t going to pay cab fare for the 40 mile drive from LAX.

The airport is a long hallway of sorts with a small collection of ticketing counters and a weird little space for security tacked onto the front of the building like an embarrassing sports bra-induced uniboob. I was flying a slightly smaller airline, and so when I arrived no one was working the counter. There was a sign saying that a representative would show up 90 minutes before the next flight. There was also no self check-in kiosk anywhere, but surely, I thought, there was another flight before mine going out, so I’d just check back shortly and it would be fine. (I’ll save you the shock: there was no other flight going out before mine.)

My plan, post-hotel check-out, was to get to the airport early (where else did I have to go—on a walk?), grab an overpriced lunch, and wait. Or maybe shop—isn’t it about time I started collecting cheesy souvenirs from my trips? Maybe something classy like spoons?

Sadly, all of the (four + Starbucks) eateries were on the other side of security, that magical land impossible to penetrate without a boarding pass. So I wandered along the narrow corridor that made up the non-secure side and found a few benches. Well, it’s a small airport, so I can tell you that I found exactly six benches. Not surprisingly, they were all filled, as several (all but one) airline counters were taking a noontime siesta at 10am. So, I found a cozy spot on the concrete floor and curled up with my magazine, Food + Wine. Big mistake, because I was a HUNGRY HIPPO! HUNGRY HUNGRY!!!! Even the airport food was starting to smell good to me from my sparse side of the hall.

The desk finally opened exactly 90 minutes before my flight. I obtained my ticket and stumbled the three feet to the quaint little security line. I figured this could go one of two ways: small airport filled with tourists = not so much action, ∴ laid back security. OR, rather few people to secure + lots-o-time before shift ends = overly fussy security. Guess which one it was?

I willingly admit that I invite aggravation by trying to stuff everything I need into a carry-on rather than spending $250,000 to check a bag. So, I have tweezers in my carry-on (with eyebrows like these, I’m doing SoCal a favor). I have deodorant in there. Is that legal? One never knows from one airport to the next, or from one day to the next, what is necessary to keep us safe from terrorists. But I did not expect to get stopped for a tampon—that was a first for me. Really, guys? Were you not taught to identify these in your hour of training? Have you never lived with a woman before? Actually, from the looks of these three, that was a possibility; at the very least, I will venture to guess that they hadn’t gotten laid in a very, very long time.

This would have mortified me a decade ago, but I am now 36 and I could care less if people know I am currently in the process of shedding my uterine lining. So, after explaining an abridged version of the Birds and the Bees for my middle-aged interrogator and repacking my bag because he seemed rather baffled by it (and how did all of my dirty underwear end up strewn along the table, anyway?), I struck out to the Other Side in search of FOOD.

Here are your options, should you wish to visit, when you are spending time in the John Wayne airport: McDonald’s, something called Creative Croissants (and they didn’t look too creative, folks), the “Sports Page Pub”, a Wolfgang Puck’s Express kiosk (wrapped sandwiches and boxed salads that cost more because they say Wolfgang Puck), and another something called “Oasis Bar and Grill” where there are four booths and the salads start at $14. So, I paid $9 for a little cup of salad. But it was a designer salad.

For your shopping pleasure, you may choose from a vast array of two Hudson News stands, a nameless magazine/ newspaper kiosk, and South Coast News, a Hudson News with neck pillows and slippers. So much for my new spoon collection, but I will say, these people like their reading material.

03 September 2010

Corn Salad: a disguise for weak corn

This is not delicious corn.  It is from Colorado. 
I love Colorado, but I hate the corn here.

I am a spoiled, ungrateful Midwesterner who had no idea how bad corn could taste outside of the Illinois-Iowa corn belt. There are many good things to say about living in Colorado, but the local corn is not on that list. What they call “sweet corn” here, I call “feed corn”. Now, don’t take offense, my Rocky Mountain friends—I’m glad that you can be happy with so little. I love you all, but sadly, you are eating shit. Absolute shit.

Now, if you grew up eating the sugary-sweet, crunchy blond corn of the upper Midwest (this one’s for you, Rebecca), you might need a way to disguise the weird hay flavor that characterizes the “corn” you get here. Plus, who doesn’t want a colorful salad at their BBQ?

Zippy Corn Salad

8 ears of corn (or 4 cups corn)

2 cups cooked beans (black, pinto, garbanzo), or 1 can beans

1 small red onion, finely diced

1 large red bell pepper, chopped

1 small jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely diced

¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro


1 garlic clove, mashed and diced

1 teaspoon dried cumin

½ tsp. salt

½ tsp. hot sauce like Frank’s Red Hot or Tapatío (or more to taste)

¼ cup lime juice

½ cup olive oil

Bring water to a boil in a Dutch oven and drop the husked, cleaned ears of corn into it. After 1 minute, remove corn and allow to cool. Cut corn off the cobs and combine with other vegetables and beans in a large bowl.

Whisk dressing ingredients together and pour over corn mixture, stirring to coat thoroughly.

01 September 2010

The Drunkest States in America | Lifestyle | Mainstreet

The Drunkest States in America Lifestyle Mainstreet

Interesting, though somewhat thin, research. Most of these results may come as no surprise (well, OK Wyoming, you surprised me a little), but now we've got the hard facts to prove how great it is to be out West!